Guam Rails Fly Home

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Guam rail

The Guam rail Gallirallus owstoni, a small, flightless bird, is extinct in the wild. This species was abundant as recently as the early 1960s, but due to the introduced brown tree snake, the rail is now virtually extinct in its historical range of Guam. As part of the AZA’s (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) Species Survival Plan (SSP), several institutions are diligently working to manage this species and work toward reestablishing it in the wild. As of last summer, there were 159 Guam rails in AZA institutions and in captivity on Guam. This number qualifies the Guam rail as a “Yellow” SSP, which means that the population is potentially sustainable but requires careful management to increase its sustainability.

As part of SSP recommendations, the San Diego Zoo’s Bird Department was involved this past March in sending five Guam rails to Guam. The birds we sent are candidates for release into the wild and are genetically diverse additions to the captive population housed on Guam. Our male, whom you may remember along the trail to the old Lory Loop, along with three others from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and one from the San Antonio Zoo, were gathered here to undergo a pre-shipment quarantine period, as all exported birds are required to do. Our zoo and Disney’s Animal Kingdom have been designated as U.S. quarantine stations for Guam rails. All five birds were housed in mosquito-proof pens at the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine for their quarantine period. Various health panels were performed by our veterinary staff to ensure the health of the birds prior to shipment.

Shipping procedures were carefully followed according to International Air Transport Association specifications. Crates for the Guam rail were carefully custom made by Dave Durflinger, a carpenter from our Construction and Maintenance Department. Each compartment had special care taken so that the birds would travel in comfort and safety: carpet on the floor, foam on the roof, and mosquito netting over every opening. The mosquito netting is required for birds traveling to any island country so as to prevent mosquitos from traveling along. Jaime Paramo, our resident crate expert, put the final touches on the crate. The Guam rails were traveling in high style!

While all of the pre-ship preparations and health exams were proceeding, the curatorial staff was working hard to take care of all the legal documentation for the shipment, making arrangements for the flights to Guam and arranging the required U.S. Fish and Game inspection of the birds in their crates. Carol Dittmer in the curator’s office even made arrangements with the Honolulu Zoo to check on the birds during their layover in Hawaii. As you can see, it is truly a group effort to get these birds to their destination!

The Guam rails arrived safely at their destination on March 15. I checked with the staff at the facility where the birds are housed: all are currently doing very well. The male that was on Lory Loop is a likely candidate for staying at the station and being part of the resident population. The three birds from the Safari Park are candidates for release into the wild. As the tree snake population on Guam has not been eradicated, the island is still not a safe release site for the species. Currently, the birds are released on the island of Rota, which is similar in habitat to Guam but has no tree snakes, so it is safe for the Guam rail. The bird from the San Antonio Zoo is still quite young, so his status has yet to be determined.

As you can see, sending these birds to Guam is a really big deal. It is a great example of how San Diego Zoo Global is a conservation organization, a demonstration of how our work helps endangered species, and an inspiration to our guests and staff alike to get involved and help endangered wildlife.

Amy Flanagan is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo.